Here's a short review I wrote of the above chapbook by the wonderfully talented Michael S. Begnal, it was published by Sabotage in 2016, shortly after the chapbook was published. See link below.
The Muddy Banks
Michael S. Begnal
Ghost City Press, Syracuse, NY, 2016.
There is a wonderful similitude at work between the structure of the Point Bridge in the poem 1877 Point Bridge, which opens this chapbook, and the formal composition of the poem itself which is divided into three parts, each one made up of five verses made up of 6 lines, fashioned in iambic dimeters ( two metrical feet, one stressed one unstressed ) as opposed to pentametres, the ones used traditionally in sonnets and which are double the metrical length, so five stressed and correspondingly five unstressed. And, just to add to the fun, each third part of the poem has an additional half line thrown in for good measure, almost mimicking the poem itself;
the dead bridge
in this investment
Why do poets do this to themselves, and more to the point to us the readers? Because, form ( be it the substance which surrounds us, or which we find ourselves entrapped in; our own flesh and blood, the visible bridge in front of us, or whatever surrounding geography would seem to encompass us ) is the primal substance which makes up our very lives, and from which there is no escape. Freedom is a cage. The Nazis, with particularly gruesome humour, wrought it above the gates of Auschwitz; Arbeit macht frei – work sets you free! So, all formal structure must be seen in this light, and particularly in a work of literature, for purely ontological reasons. Thus, a poet or artist who insists on using complex formal structures is sending us out a moral sign that they are concerned only in the pursuit of actual freedom; the one which offers up deliverance uniquely in the work. In other words, as with anything which is worth while pursuing, there is a struggle involved, and which is twofold. Firstly, there is the struggle of the artist to render into coherent form some kind of statement by them, I am using the term statement in its very widest terms. This struggle is then met with the struggle of those who come after, in this case the readers, in an attempt to comprehend what it is in fact the writer of the piece is attempting to achieve, if indeed anything! The impetus of pleasure, and pleasure alone, must not be ruled out, when considering the formal considerations taken into account, particularly when one can distinguish quite clearly, as in the case of the poems in this short work by Michael S. Begnal, the pleasure which the poet himself enjoys in the construction of their edifice.
What great portcullis-like
iron lattice-work towers
stood as cathedral spires
at both banks,
So opens the opening poem, the enjambment continuing on down until the 18th line, punctuating finally the question:
what great steel beams
suspended the span
clocks in towers
high above barges of coal,
cables hanging down in
graded decreasing lengths,
down, then moving up again
to the towers of the black bridge?
The run on lines causing a freeze frame in the descriptor, echoing the visible 'bridge suspended in smoke and haze', and also perfectly freezing the creative movement of the mind of the artist/poet.
Of course, being an artist concerned with themes such as human freedom, yet working within the constraints of formal literary structures, Begnal allows himself enough room to diverge from the rigidity of counting iambs. He is, after all, a poet not a bean counter. So, the formal constraints, as with everything, must be understood metaphorically not literally, and this is when a truly democratic appreciation of the notion of freedom must be understood. Indeed, if art and literature have any great moral truth to impart on us, as some people would like to think that they have still, is it not exactly this; that when form and content are working in almost complete accordance with one another, as in the poem 1877 Point Bridge by Michael S. Begnal, then this is exactly the kind of exercise, through the formal structural play on the constraints, that the notion of flight is inserted.
Some’s sons set it
under sooty slopes,
there are forms underneath
only they are privy to,
Stumbling alliteration used as a further ploy to once again steady the reader to really read the craft of the phrasing. The very self-conscious nature of the style of the writing being in itself the game, which certain linguists would remind us is always a primal motivator for all children when they are learning language; pleasure, in a word! The babbling babble of Babel. Then pleasure becomes eroticised, as pleasure tends to invariably do, as in the final part of the poem.
Increased facilities for intercourse
and additional comforts
afforded by the erection
will undoubtedly restore good speedy
to former vitality, and
the point is enhanced
The moral tale of the poem being: as can be our lives, by such pleasurable pursuits! It’s a point all artists and poets have been making since time immemorial. Memory itself being perhaps the second motivator, after the pleasure principle, for these poems are thick with it, and once again this is an ontological question, concerning as it does the case of human identity. In this particular case, the poet's own and his relation with the city of Pittsburgh.
With The Muddy Banks, the poet Michael S. Begnal goes on to further explore some of the former denizens of his home city, including the poet Haniel Long, a poet whom Begnal has made a particular study of. [i] Long, a poet of the thirties who was a poet of engagement, acts as a catalyst for the poet to explore contemporary issues in the US, eternal themes such as discrimination, poverty- both intellectual as well as financial- and the ever widening divide of those who have, and those who do not. Begnal’s poems are timely!
[i] Begnal, S. Michael: Haniel Long’s Pittsburgh’s Memoranda- Documentary Form and 1930’s Political Poetry, College Literature, Volume 42, No. 1, winter 2015, pp.139-166.